What is a Stereo 8?

Darlene Goodman

Stereo 8 is a format of magnetic tape recording equipment. These devices consist of cartridges and player systems. Music is typically the most popular audio material to be recorded on them. They typically hold eight songs, or four songs in stereo. The player format found its greatest popularity with the public in the 1970s and has since been virtually replaced by other technologies.

Cassettes were typically less expensive to produce than Stereo 8 systems.
Cassettes were typically less expensive to produce than Stereo 8 systems.

Stereo 8 was one of the first technologies that allowed for more portable music systems than traditional vinyl record players, which were also sold during the same time period. Eight tracks, as they were known, were typically considered more convenient for this reason. They were often installed in automobiles and airplanes. Some were sold as stand-alone music players that had built-in speakers.

In many instances, Stereo 8 cartridges are called eight-track tapes or simply eight tracks, because they can typically hold eight songs or four songs with two stereo tracks each. The tracks are usually layered next to one another on a single spool of magnetic tape. This often means that, if the tracks that lay parallel to one another on the tape are of different lengths, the tape may include extra material to fill in the gaps left on the tape following a short song.

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The single loop tape cartridges of Stereo 8 were called endless loops, because they continuously wind and unwind at the same time, with no beginning or end. The cartridges consist of a single reel of magnetic tape with tracks layered next to each other on the ribbon. The tape potentially plays a continuous loop.

The tape is pulled from the inside the spool. It rolls back onto the reel around the outside. There is no rewind feature on the Stereo 8, because this continuous feed spool cannot wind backward. Many players do, however, allow for fast forward, where the motor runs at a higher velocity to speed through the tape. The sound is usually turned off during this fast-forward.

Stereo 8 technology was invented in 1964 by Bill Lear for his airplane parts company, and was adopted by the automobile industry soon after. Many car companies installed eight track players in their automobiles. People also purchased home systems to play the same cartridges they enjoyed in the car.

In the 1970s, many Stereo 8 systems were replaced with the smaller, reel-to-reel format of cassette tapes. Cassettes were typically less expensive to produce, and offered the convenience of a rewind option. Eventually, compact discs and other digital music formats replaced much of the magnetic tape systems altogether.

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